MMU Research and Knowledge Exchange Blog

Funding opportunities, news and guidance from RKE at Manchester Metropolitan University

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Guest Blog – Science Communication in Manchester

Guest Blog from Dr Sam Illingworth, Science Communications Lecturer, MMU. This blog was originally written for The Brain Bank Manc and it can be read in its original form here 

The British Science Association (BSA) 2015 Science Communication Conference will be held on the 18th and 19th June at Manchester Metropolitan University, the first such time that the conference will have been held up t’North.

David BrewsterThe British Association for the Advancement of Science, as it was then known, was founded in York on 27 September 1831, following a suggestion by the great Scottish polymath Sir David Brewster, who chose York for the first meeting of the British Association “as the most central city in the three kingdoms”. This was the first of a series of annual meetings that has continued for over 150 years. The first meeting to take place in Manchester was in 1842, since when our glorious city has hosted another four, with the last one coming in 1962.

Perhaps the best remembered of all these meetings was at Oxford in 1860, where the English biologist Thomas Huxley debated Darwinism with the then Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce. Huxley’s speech ended with him stating that he was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but that he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth, a reference to the rhetoric skill, yet perhaps clouded judgement, of his opponent.

Thomas HuxleyIn many ways, Manchester is the perfect host city for the Science Communication Conference, not only because of its astounding number of scientists (for my money the Oxford Road corridor must have hosted the highest number of aspirational scientists – from John Dalton & William Sturgeon to Andre Geim & Kostya Novoselov – per square mile in the UK) that it has produced and nurtured, but also because of its commitment to communicating science in all of its various forms and guises, from the Manchester Beacon Network to the Manchester Science Festival.

The 2015 Science Communication Conference will be a wonderful opportunity for all aspiring Brewsters and Huxleys to come and share new ideas from across culture and society, with sessions available for a range of experience levels, from those after an introduction to science communication, to experts who want to have in-depth discussions about issues facing the sector. The key topics for the 2015 conference are: communicating through play, science communication for the public good, crowdsourcing, and telling stories with complex science & big data.


The call for proposals for sessions at the 2015 Science Communication Conference is now open, with an online form open to anyone who wants to propose a session that they would like to help organise. The deadline for proposals is 9th January 2015, so get submitting!

A handy set of FAQs to the conference can be found here; let’s all work together to ensure that Manchester is able to demonstrate why it is at the forefront of communicating science in this country.


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Guest Blog: Chasing research funding – Dr Jamie McPhee, Senior Lecturer in Human Physiology

Dr Jamie McPheeEarlier in the year, our research group were awarded a large Medical Research Council (MRC) grant.  The funding is part of the Life-Long Health and Wellbeing programme (LLHW), which is a major cross-council initiative established to meet the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population. Our work will target factors over the life course that may be major determinants of health and wellbeing in older age. The specific focus is on understanding the way in which our muscles and the nerves that control muscles change in older age, and how this may lead to weakness and problems walking or negotiating stairs and obstacles.

After agreeing to write something for the RKE blog, I set out with the intention to avoid patronising anyone and being dull, so I apologise upfront if I failed.  In the interests of avoiding a lengthy and tedious checklist, I have assumed all applications are developed around a novel idea that has reach and impact; the planned work meets the criteria of the specific funding body; and that the proposal is well written. This leaves two points that I think are crucial. As a final note, I have also given a personal perspective on the one factor that always comes up when discussing research and grant writing at MMU: Time.

1) The applicants must be recognised, leading experts.  A funding body will carefully scrutinise the wider research environment and the profile of the applicants.  These are partly judged by the scientific publications and previous funding success. In 3 previous grant applications a few years ago I felt that my own profile was not strong enough, so I brought in a team of co-applicants who could each contribute individual expertise and on paper all had better profiles than I had. I also named somebody else as Principal Investigator, despite doing the overwhelming majority of the work myself in reviewing the literature and writing the application.

I only had around 12 publications when submitting the LLHW application, and this worried me a little.  However, the team of co-applicants included MMU colleagues and Clinicians from University of Manchester, and between us we had hundreds of published research papers and an impressive list of successful funding applications. Over the previous few years I have worked hard to boost my own profile: I was Workpackage Leader in the largest workpackage of the €12m “MYOAGE” Pan-European study into ageing skeletal muscles; I was co-Principal Investigator in a large-scale collaborative study to examine nutritional interventions to maintain muscle function in older age, funded by Danone; I was co-investigator in a £46,000 study to develop exercise interventions to maintain muscle function with ageing; and was involved in several other funded projects.  At MMU we have some excellent facilities and in the application we showed pilot data to prove that we really could achieve the aims of the proposal. Despite having demonstrated a good personal research profile, excellent research team, appropriate facilities and the capability to successfully lead and complete large-scale projects, I nevertheless think that it was crucial to work with clinicians in the LLHW/MRC bid.

2) If at first you don’t succeed …try again. The idea behind the successful LLHW proposal started out several years ago.  We had been reviewing the literature and collecting our own data over several years to understand the possible reasons why muscles become smaller and weaker in older age and why balance and walking ability deteriorate. We identified what we believe to be an important mechanism that, for several reasons, had been largely overlooked – giving us a novel idea.  The idea had been written up and submitted for funding three times in the past 2 years, all were unsuccessful. Each time, the proposal was adapted and improved, with the LLHW application being the fourth revision of the same proposal.

Over the past few years I have written and/or been co-applicant on at least a dozen grant applications. All were directly related to exercise, nutrition and health, which are overarching themes in my own work and the wider Research Institute.

Time: It takes dedication sustained over many years to build up expert knowledge, a research profile, develop a network of leading collaborators and to write and submit grant applications. Equally, a lot of time is spent in the research labs developing new techniques and collecting research data to meet the aims of the on-going project, or collect pilot data to support the next application.  This commitment to research has to be balanced against teaching duties as well as family life.  More often than not, for me at least, research is completed in the evenings, weekends and by giving up annual leave. It thus goes unseen by colleagues and is sometimes denounced by my wife. Research is vital for the prestige and profile of the university; benefitting staff, students and the wider public, so it is important that we find a sustainable balance between commitments: unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to this just yet.

The RKE office are now offering more support to researchers and I would encourage anyone planning to write an application to get in touch with them and to chat with Heads of Department at the earliest stage of planning.

Dr Jamie McPhee, Senior Lecturer in Human Physiology.

Read about Dr McPhee’s research project funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) here.